The Profession and the Academy Reconnect About Legal Education

For the first time in recent memory, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and representatives of Canadian law schools met in New Brunswick on October 19-20, 2016 to talk about legal education.

A Brief History of Law Societies v. Law Schools

Here is some background that will help readers understand why this meeting was so important.

Canadian law schools have traditionally had a fairly free hand in setting their curriculum and the requirements for graduation. Law societies set the requirements for the call to the bar in each province. However, the profession has over the past century played a significant role in affecting law school curriculum.

In 1919, the Canadian Bar Association formed a special committee to develop national standards for law schools in the common law provinces. It recommended a subject list, and the years in which they should be taught, but had no required core curriculum. It was voluntarily adopted by Canadian law schools.

Skip ahead 50 years to 1969, when the Law Society of Upper Canada changed curriculum requirements to follow recommendations by the Ontario law deans, with seven core courses that had to be taken by students and 18 others that were to be offered. The reform provided law schools with flexibility in designing their curriculum. This system defined legal education for 40 years.

This period of détente ended in 2009 when the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) approved a set of competencies with which law schools must comply in order to have its students automatically approved to enter the bar admission process. Although there was consultation with the Canadian law deans before the competencies were implemented, there was not a consensus among the deans with regards to these changes. [1]

Why Law Societies and Law Schools Need to Talk

The keynote speaker was Paula Littlewood, Executive Director of the Washington State Bar Association. She reminded us that law schools and law societies are part of a continuum, from law school to the profession to continuing education. Here are some highlights from her overview of trends in law:

  • Lawyers and firms are changing
  • The public is changing
  • Methods of delivering legal services are changing
  • 50% of the middle class do not retain a lawyer when faced with a legal problem
  • Clients are resorting to the Home Depot approach of do-it-yourself law
  • gets 325,000 hits per day and provides the sale of legal service packages
  • Legal services are becoming commoditized, especially content and process

Ms. Littlewood stated that we must break down the silos between law schools, the profession, and continuing legal education. To that end, we must provide our law students with 21st century skills. This means not necessarily making students practice ready, but giving them the skills they will need to succeed.

What are those skills? The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) carried out a survey of 24,000 US lawyers and asked them what are the top ten foundations new lawyers need for success right out of law school. Interestingly, Ms. Littlewood pointed out that none of the top ten had to do with legal skills. They were all personal characteristics, such as confidentiality, punctuality, integrity, courtesy, respect, diligence, and attention to detail.

The IAALS report states that there is a “gap between the skillset lawyers want in new graduates and the skillset lawyers believe new graduates have.” I expect the same applies to Canada.

This is why the Federation and law schools need to talk. The world is changing. The profession is changing. Law schools are part of the continuum of the legal profession: they are irreversibly connected. To better serve the public, we must ensure that the skills learned by law students align with the needs of law firms and their clients. This means an examination and reform of law school curriculum with the cooperation of law schools and law societies.

Can Law Schools and Law Societies Get Along?

University of Ottawa professor Adam Dodek and Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Paul Schabas were entertaining on a panel, Dodek explaining how law schools are viewed by law societies (outdated, out of touch, out of time), and Schabas suggesting law societies are viewed by law schools as stuck in a 1950s view of curriculum requirements, and just worried about raising dues.

While this was done in fun, there is some truth to what they said. The truth is that there has been very little discussion about curriculum between law schools and law societies for periods of decades. I have called it “The Great Disconnect,” and it will take time for the two sides to develop a deep and respectful relationship.

On the second day of the conference, small groups debated some key questions. Many of those questions dealt with the implementation of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Others dealt with issues such as:

  • Nationwide competencies for the future
  • Experiential and clinical legal education
  • Technology and the digitalization of legal education

A key question was the final one: how do we foster a new, collaborative relationship between law societies and law schools that recognizes their shared responsibility for legal education?

This conference opened the door to a new relationship between law schools and law societies. I sensed an acknowledgement that the status quo was no longer good enough, and change is needed. I hope both sides can walk through that door to further discussions, and then to action.


[1] This section relies to a large extent on my paper “The Great Disconnect: Reconnecting the Academy to the Profession” in 2014 Alberta Law Review Vol. 51, No. 4.

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